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Commentary Education

AFT-Md.: To Successfully Implement Blueprint Reforms, MSDE Employees Need Vital Protections

Blueprint photo by Katerina Holmes.

By Kenya Campbell

The writer is president of AFT-Maryland, a state federation of public employee labor unions representing nearly 20,000 local and state government employees across Maryland, including members in education, public health, corrections and a host of other industries. She has been a Baltimore City public school educator for more than 20 years and was an alternate to the Kirwan Commission.

In response to Kalman Hettleman’s commentary, [“A Below-the-Radar, Do-or-Die Bill for School Reform,” Maryland Matters, March 16], let us begin from a point of common ground: it is imperative that, for the successful implementation of the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, and for it to truly have a transformative role in the education of Maryland’s students, all education workers engaged in the effort to improve our schools must be adequately compensated, including the dedicated staff employed at the Maryland State Department of Education.

However, Senate Bill 794 undoes all the work to professionalize the MSDE workforce by granting management the authority to rewrite its own personnel rules and return employees to at-will status. Worse, it allows the department to replace state employee positions at MSDE with contractual workers, a move that is akin to privatization of the department.

As a state federation with members working in every state agency, this is a terrible precedent to set.

State employee unions have grown weary sounding the alarm for the past eight years that nearly every agency, MSDE included, is hemorrhaging staff due to stagnant wages and the elimination of benefits. However, rather than solve these problems, SB 794 would exacerbate them by removing MSDE employees from the protections afforded nearly every other state worker in Maryland.

It is an error to assume SB 794 will fix long-standing problems of our state’s Department of Education, as Hettleman asserts. Rather, this bill expressly undoes the work of legislation passed in 2019 that was introduced by another Kirwan commissioner, now-House Speaker Adrienne Jones.

Prior to 2019, employees of the department were at-will with very little employment rights and could be fired for no reason. Speaker Jones’ 2019 bill changed that; it recognized that the hard-working staff at MSDE ought to be afforded the same due-process rights as all state employees and placed in the state personnel management system.

Furthermore, by being placed in the state personnel management system, more staff could be hired through a competitive system to assure MSDE hires the most qualified candidates. In fact, the legislature expressly argued the passage of the 2019 bill (HB 390) was needed to successfully facilitate the implementation of the Blueprint and stem the tide of protracted vacancies within the department.

SB 794 undoes all that work of professionalizing the MSDE workforce by granting MSDE management the authority to re-write its own personnel rules and potentially return employees to their pre-2019 at-will status.

The bill’s own language allows MSDE department management to write rules for hiring, compensation, advancement and termination of all regular full-time and part-time personnel without acknowledging those rules must be collectively bargained. To repeat, this ostensibly allows the department to replace state employee positions at MSDE with contractual workers, a move that functionally privatizes the department.

And yet, proponents of the bill are quite vague on specifically how removing these employees from protections written into Maryland code is necessary to implement the Blueprint.

Proponents of this bill must answer these questions: Why must MSDE employees be hired and fired at the will of MSDE management for the programs of the Blueprint to be implemented? What specific Blueprint programs call for this? If the answer is “none,” then we fear this bill is just a cynical attempt to use much-needed education reform to revert unfair powers back to management at MSDE.

If the call is to increase pay and benefits for the employees at MSDE to attract and retain the highest quality staff at the department, we stand ready to work with Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury to support a bill that would do just that, just as we currently support bills that call for increased pay to school support personnel left out of the Blueprint.

Removing MSDE employee protections is not the path to accomplish this, and therefore we oppose SB 794.


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AFT-Md.: To Successfully Implement Blueprint Reforms, MSDE Employees Need Vital Protections